Romans 1:18-32


In our previous session we saw that the theme of Romans is “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  In Romans we have a detailed account of the gospel preached by Paul.  As we go through Romans, it is important to keep the large picture in mind.  In the letter are four major movements.  After the introduction in Romans 1:1-17, Paul tells us four things about the gospel.

  • The gospel begins with recognition of our sin problem (Chapters 1-3a).  The key verse is Romans 3:23 – “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
  • The gospel focuses on salvation by faith in Jesus (Chapters 3b­­­-8).  The key verse is Romans 5:1 – “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  • The gospel is for all people (Chapters 9-11).  The key verse is Romans 10:13 – “For whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
  • The gospel calls us to a life of sacrificial service (Chapters 12-16).  The key verse is Romans 12:1 – “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”


In this session we are going to begin exploring the section of Romans from the middle part of chapter 1 to the middle part of chapter 3 that deals with our sin problem.  In this section Paul establishes three major things:

    1. Romans 1:18-32 – The pagans (Gentiles) are guilty of sin.
    2. Romans 2:1-3:8 – The Jews are guilty of sin.
    3. Romans 3:­20 – The whole world is guilty of sin.


The Pagans (Gentiles) are guilty of sin (Romans 1:18-32)

Before we explore this passage is some detail, I want to make two general observations that I believe will help us better understand what is being said in these verses.


1.  The first general observation has to do with the phrase “the wrath of God” (v.18). 

  • The theme of Romans is not “the wrath of God.”  The theme is the “righteousness of God” as revealed in the gospel (see Romans 1:16-17).  The concept of righteousness (either God’s righteousness or our righteousness by virtue of what God had done for us in Christ) is referred to more than 60 times in Romans.  The phrase “the righteousness of God” which is almost synonymous with “the saving acts or salvation of God” describes how God prefers to relate to His creation.  Throughout Romans Paul makes it clear that God desires for us to accept by faith His offer of forgiveness through the sacrificial death of His Son.  He desires that we allow Him to cleanse us from our sin and make us righteous or right with Him.
  • However, if we reject God’s offer of righteousness, instead of experiencing “the righteousness of God” we experience “the wrath of God.”  It is no accident that Paul places the concepts of righteousness and wrath side by side in verses 17 and 18.  He is saying we have a choice between the two.  If we do not choose righteousness, we experience God’s wrath. 
  • What is “the wrath of God?”  That phrase does not mean the same thing as saying “God is angry.”  It is noteworthy that Paul never uses the verb “to be wrathful” with God as the subject.  Some people have a concept of God as an angry deity who is gleefully waiting for an opportunity to punish human sinfulness.  That is not the biblical picture of God.  While God does punish human sin, He does not do so gleefully.  He does so with a broken heart.  Hosea 11:1-9 is a beautiful description of God’s attitude toward the sins of humanity.  Whatever “the wrath of God” is, it does not come from an angry, vengeful heart but from a broken heart.  
  • There are two ways to view “the wrath of God.”

i.        “The wrath of God” against sin is viewed by some people as kind of an automatic force that is built-in to our universe.  They see it as a force that naturally resists evil and encourages good.  William Barclay takes this view in writing, “There is a moral order in this world, and the person who transgresses the moral order, sooner or later, is bound to suffer … moral  order is the wrath of God at work.”  [Barclay, Romans, p.18]  While that may be true, it does not go nearly far enough.

ii.      “The wrath of God” is the expression of God’s definite, positive displeasure and intolerance of sin.  One writer defined “the wrath of God” this way:  “The wrath of God is God’s personal although never malicious or, in a bad sense, emotional reaction against sin.” [Barrett]  In other words, “the wrath of God” is not an arbitrary outburst of anger or God throwing a temper-tantrum.  It is a strong, consistent expression of God’s abhorrence of our sin.

·         This passage makes it clear that God’s wrath causes God to act.  Three times in this passage (verses 24, 26, and 28) we are told “…God gave them over…”  That is an expression of divine judgment and wrath.  The point is God does not remain neutral or unmoved by human sin.  The result of our sin is that we become the recipients of God’s wrath.


2.  The second general observation has to do with the downward spiral of sin.  A definite regression can be seen in this passage.

·         The beginning point of sin is idolatry which is rooted in intellectual arrogance (vv.18-23). The result is we begin worshiping the creation rather than the Creator.  “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” (Romans 1:22-23)

·         Idolatry leads to immorality (vv.24-27).  With no God except those gods they have created, people are free to set moral standards however they desire.  These verses make it clear the standards people set are very low. 

·         Immorality leads to a rebellious attitude toward God.  “…and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32)

From idolatry to immorality to open rebellion against God.  That’s always the way of sin. 

As Paul observes the pagan culture in which he lived (remember he probably wrote Romans from Corinth, one of the most immoral cities of the ancient world), he gives a scathing denunciation of what he saw. 


The idolatry of the pagan world (Romans 1:18-23) – In this paragraph Paul deals with the question of how can people be held accountable for rejecting God if they have not been told about God.  If they did not have God’s revelation in the Law of Moses, how could they be held accountable for not obeying the law?  If they had not heard of God’s revelation in Jesus, how could they be held accountable for rejecting Jesus?  In response to those unspoken questions, Paul points to the general or natural revelation of God (as opposed to specific or special revelation which culminated in the Christ event).  Notice that Paul says in verse 19, “…that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them…”  That phrase speaks of two specific forms of the natural or general revelation of God.

“within them” speaks of something God has placed inside of every human to confirm His existence.  Some call it conscience.  Others speak of it as moral sensitivity.  C.S. Lewis spoke of it as the sense of “I ought” inside each person which implies a corresponding “thou shalt.”  Whatever you may call it, the point is God has stamped upon our very natures the conviction that some being greater than we exists.  This general revelation is in all of us.

“to them” speaks of the outward general revelation of God in the world of nature.  Verse 20 further explains this type of revelation.  “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”  (Romans 1:20)  As Dale Moody put it, “…God’s invisible nature is revealed through the visible nature…” [Broadman, p.170].  Who hasn’t looked at the stars on a clear moonless night or a majestic sunset or towering mountains and thought of the glory and power of the Creator.  The psalmist spoke of that experience in Psalm 19.

The point of all that is those who worship idols—whether it is some figure created by human hands or the more subtle idols of power, fame, material possessions, beauty, education, etc. that permeate our culture—are without excuse.  That is because God has revealed enough about Himself to all people, both inwardly and outwardly, for all people to know that He and He alone is to be the object of our worship.  The reason idolatry is so bad is that it is a purposeful, deliberate rejection of God’s self-revelation to us.  As Paul says in this paragraph, there is simply no excuse for doing so.


The immorality of the pagan world (Romans 1:24-27) – Someone has said, “From idolatry to immorality is just one short step.” [Wiersbe, p.23]  If we do away with the one true God and create our own gods, in the process we do away with absolute standards.  We can do whatever we think will bring us pleasure without fear of judgment.  That is the process described in these verses.  When people stopped worshiping the true God, it was not long before they did away with truth.  Notice the phrase in verse 25, “…they exchanged the truth of God for a lie…”  The marginal note in your Bible may point out that “a lie” is literally “the lie” indicating that Paul had a particular lie in mind.  It is the lie that we can be our own gods and that we are capable of setting our own moral standards.  It is the lie Satan used in the Garden of Eden when he told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would not die but would become like God.  It is the lie that leads one down the pathway to gross immorality.  The result of self-deification (the idolatrous act of making ourselves gods) is self-indulgence (a life-style of immorality).  This passage makes that abundantly clear.


Two statements in these verses sum up the immorality of the pagan world.

·         Verse 24 – “…God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…”  The word translated “lusts” means the desire for something that is forbidden.  Barclay describes it as “…the desire which makes people do shameless things which they would never have done if this desire had not taken away their sense of honor and prudence and decency.” [Barclay, Romans, p.21]

·         Verse 26 – “…God gave them over to degrading passions…” The phrase “degrading passions” is one expression of “lusts” and refers to unrestricted, unnatural sexual desire.


These verses give a pictures of the moral depravity of the ancient world, which was not unlike the world  in which we live.  For example:

·         One ancient Roman writer said that “…women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married…” and that some high-born Roman matrons dated the years by the names of their husbands.

·         The wife of Emperor Claudius, Agrippina, would slip out of the royal residence at night to work in a brothel as a prostitute out of sheer lust.

·         Homosexuality was rampant in Rome.  Some scholars say that as many as 14 of the first 15 Roman Emperors were homosexuals or bi-sexual.  Suetonius, the Roman historian, said of Julius  Caesar, “He was every woman’s man and every man’s woman.”


The rebellious spirit of the pagan world (Romans 1:28-32) – This paragraph paints a graphic picture of what happens in the lives of people who choose to be openly rebellious against God.  Notice the regression in their lives:

·         First, their thinking becomes corrupt.  They are characterized by a “depraved mind” which means a mind incapable of making sound judgments.  There is a play on words in the Greek of verse 28.  In effect Paul says that since “…they did not see fit to acknowledge God…” God saw fit to give them over to an unfit mind!

·         Second, their corrupt thinking led to corrupt living.  The list of more than 20 vices in verses 29-31 describe the lives of those whom God has abandon to follow the dictates of their “depraved minds.”

·         Third, their influence become corrupt.  They are not content to lead rebellious, disobedient lives.  In addition, they encourage others to join them.  Have you noticed that those who live immoral life-styles are severely intolerant of those who do not share in their values?


In this section Paul puts forth a convincing case for the sinfulness of the pagan or Gentile world.  One writer says of this section of Romans, “Is it not remarkable that so much of what the Bible calls reprobation modern man calls either an illness or an alternative life-style” [LBC, p.31].


Having established the guilt of the Gentiles, in the next section of Romans Paul turns to the guilt of the Jews.